NELSON Surname Meaning and Family History

The Nelson surname is believed to have derived from an Irish personal name meaning champion.
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Nelson is a patronymic surname meaning "son of Nell," a form of the Irish name Neal, from the Gaelic Niall, which is thought to mean "champion." In some situations the surname could also be matronymic, meaning "son of Eleanor," a female given name with the same origins as Neal.

Nelson could also be an Anglicized spelling of similar sounding Scandinavian surnames such as Nilsen, Nielsen, and Nilsson.

Surname Origin: Irish


Famous People with the Surname Nelson

  • Willie Nelson - American country music artist and songwriter
  • Horatio Nelson - great English naval leader during the Napoleonic Wars
  • John Allen Nelson - American actor

Where the Nelson Surname Is Most Commonly Found

Today, the Nelson surname is most common in the United States, according to surname distribution data from Forebears, ranked as the 34th most common surname in the country. WorldNames PublicProfiler profiles Nelson as most popular in the northern midwest and northwestern states—especially Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana—possibly due to large numbers of Scandinavian immigrants to those areas.

Nelson is also a fairly common last name in a number of African countries, according to Forebears, including Uganda and Mozambique, and in the Caribbean. Based on 1901 census data, Nelson was not very common in Ireland, with the exception of the Northern Ireland county of Antrim, followed by Down, Londonderry, and Tyrone.

Irish surname mapping tools from John Grenham indicate that the Nelson surname is especially common in Northern Ireland, particularly in the counties of Down and Antrim. This was true in the mid-nineteenth century based on Griffith's Valuation (1847–1864), as well as into the twentieth century based on a mapping of Nelson births between 1864 and 1913.

Genealogy Resources for the Surname Nelson

  • 100 Most Common U.S. Surnames & Their Meanings: Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, Brown... Are you one of the millions of Americans sporting one of these top 100 common last names from the 2000 census?
  • Nelson DNA Project: Join up with other Nelson descendants who are using DNA to help sort out their various family lines.
  • Nelson Family Crest - It's Not What You Think: Contrary to what you may hear, there is no such thing as a Nelson family crest or coat of arms for the Nelson surname. Coats of arms are granted to individuals, not families, and may rightfully be used only by the uninterrupted male-line descendants of the person to whom the coat of arms was originally granted.
  • Nelson Family Genealogy Forum: Search this popular genealogy forum for the Nelson surname to find others who might be researching your ancestors, or post your own Nelson query.
  • FamilySearch - NELSON Genealogy: Explore over 11 million historical records which mention individuals with the Nelson surname, as well as online Nelson family trees on this free website hosted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • NELSON Surname & Family Mailing Lists: RootsWeb hosts several free mailing lists for researchers of the Nelson surname.
  • - NELSON Genealogy & Family History: Free databases and genealogy links for the last name Nelson.
  • GeneaNet - Nelson Records: GeneaNet includes archival records, family trees, and other resources for individuals with the Nelson surname, with a concentration on records and families from France and other European countries.
  • The Nelson Genealogy and Family Tree Page: Browse family trees and links to genealogical and historical records for individuals with the last name Nelson from the website of Genealogy Today.


  • Cottle, Basil. Penguin Dictionary of Surnames. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1967.
  • Dorward, David. Scottish Surnames. Collins Celtic (Pocket edition), 1998.
  • Fucilla, Joseph. Our Italian Surnames. Genealogical Publishing Company, 2003.
  • Hanks, Patrick, and Flavia Hodges. A Dictionary of Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Hanks, Patrick. Dictionary of American Family Names. Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Reaney, P.H. A Dictionary of English Surnames. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Smith, Elsdon C. American Surnames. Genealogical Publishing Company, 1997
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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "NELSON Surname Meaning and Family History." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). NELSON Surname Meaning and Family History. Retrieved from Powell, Kimberly. "NELSON Surname Meaning and Family History." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).